Over the past decade, Alison Eisinger has helped more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle register to vote. This year, despite the stakes involved in the U.S. presidential election in November, Eisinger isn’t making the same effort.
Seattle already has 7,000 individuals who lack shelter, a number that could swell if a moratorium on evictions is lifted.
“It would be irresponsible for us to think that voter registration is a top priority for someone who is wondering where they’ll get their next meal, or lay their head,” said Eisinger, who directs the King County Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit group. “Even for those of us who deeply, profoundly believe in the power of organizing and voter registration, we’re focused on other things, because that’s the nature of a crisis.”
The same dynamic holds true across the country. Between 30 and 40 million American households may face eviction this year, according to one recent study. A federal program to block evictions for a third of the renting population has expired, as have eviction moratoriums in more than half the 50 United States. Others may run out just weeks before the election.
It's worth noting that eviction is not an immediate process. Evictions can drag on for months, fought out in local courts. A significant share of people clear out immediately when served with eviction notices; however, they are often unaware of their legal rights as tenants, housing advocates say.
Voter registration process
That could have a profound effect on voting. Homeless individuals, like other citizens, have the right to vote. The voting registration process, however, generally depends on having a permanent address.
“People’s voting rights are being taken away from them at the same time their homes are taken away from them,” said Claire Tran, an organizer with Right to the City Alliance, a coalition of progressive housing advocacy groups.
Registration rules vary widely by state. Nineteen states have automatic voter registration systems to sign people up when they interact with state agencies (usually, the department of motor vehicles, or DMV). All those systems are fairly new, however, with the oldest dating back only to 2014.
In most states, individuals still have to make an active effort, with registrations tied to their current place of residence.
They’re supposed to update their information when they move, whether voluntarily or not. Often, people forget until an election is coming up, when it may be too late. Some states require individuals to register at least 30 days ahead of an election; fewer than half allow people to register as late as Election Day itself.
“People don’t think about their voter registration when they’re moving, they think about it when they vote,” said Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, the top election official in the state.
Voter registration in the U.S. lags well behind other nations.
During the last presidential election, in 2016, of the 245.5 million Americans of voting age (those 18 and older), only about 157.6 million (64%) reported being registered to vote, according to the Census Bureau. Of those Americans of voting age, however, just over 137.5 million (56%) said they had actually voted, according to the census.
By contrast, more than 90% of adults are registered in Canada and the United Kingdom. Nations such as Germany and Sweden automatically register people to vote.
Hurdles in 2020
People who lack stable housing always have a hard time voting in the U.S., but the hurdles will be higher this year. The county agencies that administer elections are facing nearly universal budget problems, with many shutting polling sites due to a shortage of temporary poll workers, even as they cope with a pandemic.
The cottage industry that normally springs up in election years to register people has gone dormant, with the coronavirus pandemic canceling the type of large gatherings such as concerts and fairs where political parties and voting rights groups usually sign people up. (The wave of anti-racism protests across the country has been an exception.) Many DMV offices are closed, too.
“Texas is the most difficult state in the country to register people to vote on a good day, and now we’re on the worst day,” said Charlie Bonner, spokesman for MOVE Texas, which promotes participation in elections. “We’ve seen the numbers drop dramatically, compared to the last presidential election, which is exceptionally frustrating because there was so much momentum.”
Registration efforts are taking place online, but that’s of no use to people without computers or internet access – an increasing problem for homeless and low-income individuals, with many public libraries, which provide free use of computers, shuttered by the pandemic.
In order to vote in most states, individuals need a form of government-issued photo identification. Getting a photo ID, however, usually requires having another form of identification. People who are homeless have often lost important documents or had them seized or stolen.
Many homeless individuals list shelters as their mailing addresses, but some shelters have been shuttered since March.
In all 50 states, individuals are allowed to register without an address (in some states, they can list an intersection or the bridge they sleep under as a domicile). In practice, however, people who are visibly homeless often find themselves turned away at the polls by ill-trained workers.
“A homeless person is able to register and vote, but if people don’t know that, that’s unfortunately a means of voter suppression,” said Louis Bedford IV, an election protection fellow at the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project.
Absentee ballot request forms
This year, eight states and the District of Columbia are sending all registered voters absentee ballot request forms to encourage more people to vote by mail; all but eight states are allowing every voter to send in absentee ballots by mail, without needing an excuse for being unable or unwilling to vote in person. If a person has been evicted and left no forwarding address, however, they won’t receive those forms or their ballots.
“Mailing ballots is meant to increase participation and decrease exposure to COVID, but it requires an address to participate,” said Paru Shah, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Shah is coauthor of a study that found foreclosures dampen voter turnout.
Losing a home through foreclosure or eviction is always a traumatic event. Navigating the registration process won’t be a top-of-mind concern for most people who are coping with eviction in the middle of a pandemic. That will exacerbate long-standing inequities.
Americans who own their own homes are more likely to vote than renters, while higher-income individuals vote more often than the poor, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. A majority of homeless individuals are Black, Hispanic or members of other minority groups, according to the National Homelessness Law Center.
“Unemployment rates and disproportionately poor health outcomes are falling, unfortunately, on Black and brown people,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the voting rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Evictions are going to be another chapter in that story of problems falling on voters of color.”
Americans elect lawmakers based on where they live. When they lose their homes, they may miss their chance to express their political will.
“If people’s basic needs with food, housing and health care are not met, it’s going to be hard for them to focus on their civic duty,” said Franccesca Cesti-Browne, a Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, “and that’s a big concern.”